A spinning, solar-powered spacecraft has captured new images of the neighborhood’s largest planet—and wow, are they spectacular.
Since entering orbit on July 4 2016, NASA’s Juno spacecraft has been revealing a world coated in curling clouds that loop and spiral around one another, creating filigreed bands speckled with roiling oval storms.
Some of these storms dapple the planet’s previously unseen poles, and they all join the best known of the Jovian tempests, a splotch called the Great Red Spot that stretches more than an Earth across (but which has been shrinking over recent decades).
The new images “look like Van Gogh paintings,” says Juno’s principal investigator Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute. “I kind of expected some of this, because a long time ago, Voyager took pictures, and other spacecraft that have gone near Jupiter have taken some images, but they’re usually global ones and boy, when you get close and you see these swirls, they look like art.”
NASA's Juno spacecraft obtained this color view of the Jupiter system on June 21, 2016, at a distance of 6.8 million miles. The giant planet's four largest moons—Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto—are visible, and the alternating light and dark bands of the planet's clouds are just beginning to come into view.
These stunning clouds are produced by Jupiter’s incredibly complex atmospheric dynamics—things like winds and turbulence—combined with certain chemistries that produce their vibrant colors. But the precise reason why Jupiter alone is so fantastically painted isn’t clear.
“You don’t see that on Saturn, Uranus, or Neptune for some reason,” Bolton says. “Maybe what you’re seeing is the fact that Jupiter is so big that it has triggered some other special dynamics that are star-like, to some extent.”
Juno is doing more than simply ogling this magnificent planetscape. Designed to tease out the intricacies of Jupiter’s innards, the spacecraft carries eight instruments that monitor the planet’s gravity, auroras, atmosphere, magnetosphere, cloud depths, and electric fields.
Together, they should help scientists learn more about the planet’s origins and what, exactly, lies beneath those clouds—straight down to the planet’s heart, which could be made from heavy elements or rock wrapped in a fluid form of metallic hydrogen.
So far, though, seeing the planet’s poles for the first time has been one of the highlights of the mission. These regions are strikingly different from equatorial Jupiter, with a blue tinge, numerous cyclones, and a lack of distinct cloudy bands.
“The new polar perspective is very exciting,” says Candy Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute, who leads the spacecraft’s JunoCam, which seeks input from the public on what to photograph. “All the filigree and storm structure—that is so beautiful!”
On March 27, Juno swung low over Jupiter during its fourth science orbit, coming within 2,700 miles of those magnificent cloud tops. Images from that orbit will be released soon.
And over its next set of orbits, Juno will continue focusing on Jupiter’s deep atmosphere and interior structure, gathering data that scientists will eventually combine into a global view of this mysterious world.
“We’re essentially making a map of Jupiter in order to interrogate how the physics works and how the interior structure is built and how Jupiter formed,” Bolton says. He and the team promise much more Jupiter fun to come, in the form of detailed results that will be published soon.
Until then, we can bask in the beauty of the biggest planet in the solar system.